That’s right, I was one of “those people” and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Well, yes I am.
When I first informed my friends that I was moving to New York, and that I had chanced upon living arrangements that would only require a meagre $600 a month in rent from me, they usually responded with incredulous stares and dropped jaws, and, once they had recovered from the shock, cracked jokes like, “600 a month?!? You could beg for spare change in the subway and make that!” I would join in laughter at my good fortune, and, when feeling bold, would take the joke a step further and act out busker routines with which I intended to wow ‘em at Times Square subway station or the Port Authority bus terminal. My favorite of these was a Metallica-inspired rendition of the negro spiritual, “Pilgrim of Sorrow.” I’d hold my air guitar upright and close to my face (which was distorted with the rage that can only be expressed through heavy metal) and hiss the lyrics of “Pilgrim of Sorrow” to the melody of “Puppet Master.” Actually, the idea of having only a month to come up with $600, every month, ignoring the other necessities like food and opera tickets, filled my heart with foreboding. The only jobs I had ever had were babysitting, daycare, and writing geneologies and pricing for my mother’s jewelry line. Babysitting would yield $20-$40 for a night, daycare paid $8/hour, and my mother’s work wasn’t organized beyond the understanding that I worked for her and then spent her money (I knew, and believe she suspected, that my spending to working ratio was rather top-heavy). I had never had to pay rent or electric bills or worry how to budget for my enormous food intake. My jobs had been more gestures symbolic of my good intentions than an authentic commitment to contributing to my own and my family’s welfare, somewhat similar to Marlene Dietrich’s stint flipping burgers as a USO cafeteria server. Because I “worked,” I had the right to “spend like a drunken sailor;” the fact that the amount of money I made had very little connection to the amount I spent was a nuance I assiduously overlooked. Usually earned money and spending money weren’t even the same bills. I would collect my modest check from the San Francisco Tennis Club daycare center, deposit it in my savings account (deposits were the only transactions I ever had with the bank), and return home, where I’d fish several fifties out of my mother’s money envelop to keep as casual spending cash. Or I’d attach three or four price tags to some necklace chains during the commercials while The X Files was on, feeling not only that besmirching quality TV time with labor proved the solidity of my work ethic, but that it also justified my regularly helping myself to elaborate and pricey spa treatments and sushi dinners as well as my ongoing quest to find ever more posh and luxurious bras. I am still waiting for them to come out with one lined in chinchilla.
In other words, I was scandalously ignorant of the value of the dollar.
When I moved to New York, I checked the Times job notices and the listings on an online organization which catered to people seeking employment in the arts. A legendary Broadway theatre would be seeking a new dramaturg (a dramaturg provides criticism and guidance to the theatre’s directors and writers) and I’d write to them explaining how I was over-qualified for this job due to my lofty “Great Books” education and the fact that I had sold drinks during intermission at my theatre company in San Francisco, and thus already had experience in the thea-tah. The same Broadway house found my qualifications lacking when, my dramaturgy application having been ignored entirely, I applied for a job selling tickets over the phone in the basement.
I applied to work at four different Starbuck’s, hoping to take advantage of their excellent medical benefits and get myself a pair of glamorous rimless eyeglasses, but was ignored every time. I could understand the first time, as during my interview, when asked what I loved about Starbuck’s and why I wanted to work there, my annoyance at being asked such an idiotic question and my natural candor joined forces and I blurted out that I had actually sworn off coffee two years ago for health reasons and didn’t usually patronize chain businesses, preferring to support the dying mom-and-pop shops instead. Realizing my blunder, I tried to redeem myself by declaring that I was ever so excited about the new green tea frappucino and was in fact relaxing my embargo on Starbuck’s since, as there’s one on practically every corner in Manhattan, I often couldn’t find a mom-and-pop coffeeshop for miles anyway. I spoke more wisely in subsequent interviews (one can near-anonymously apply to work at all the different Starbucks “districts.” Each “district” is made up of four or five Starbuck’s locations and usually covers up to one and a half city blocks). I waxed poetic on the comforting purr of the espresso machine, the cozy morning smell of a hearty Venezuelan roast, the caffeine high that makes me love the world just a little bit more, and the hip-yet-chill-yet-groovy-yet-unobtrusive array of music played there to which I was delighted to learn they had just added early recordings of Bob Dylan. What better venue for the establishment-hating folk icon? Still, no go.
Finally I answered an ad from the Village Voice for telemarketing for local theatres and symphonies. I felt this was much unlike regular telemarketing jobs because even though I would make a living calling people at home and trying to sell them stuff, what I was selling them was of such a worthy nature that the people I called would be impressed and even grateful that I was contacting them about it: for if I did not save the arts, who would? I would definitely sleep peacefully at night.
I was put on the Yale Repertory Theatre campaign, and most of the leads I was given were people who lived in Connecticut. I had never been to Connecticut and had only a very Thomas Kinkade-ian image of what it must be like. After my first few minutes of making calls I realized that most people were not going to be impressed or even grateful to be solicited by me for any reason. I always had the vague impression that I was interrupting their Christmas dinner, even though I was calling in late August. To me, Connecticut enjoyed a perpetual state of mid-Autumn–outside, that is–all red and gold leaves cascading over quaint cottage-style family homes. Inside the cottages, one could sit in one’s Norwegian wool sweater with silver buttons sipping hot cider by the fire and gazing out the window at a silent winter scene as snow flakes softly floated by and stuck to the frosted window pane. Oh, and there was always a candle placed near said window, shimmering elegantly in its glass,–and wafting in from the kitchen was always the smell of the Christmas turkey being cooked just right. The streets they lived on had names like “Old Orchard Road” and “Cherry Tree Lane.” This for me was Connecticut, and these the scenes I was interrupting with my crass big-city marketing ploys. “All male Taming of the Shrew!! What will they dream up next??” (non-sequitur commentary: I later spent several days in Greenwich on a trunk show for my mother. For reasons never explained to me, I have been banished forever from the Saks Fifth Avenue location there, as well as the Stanton House Inn, the oldest inn in Connecticut, where I stayed. The Saks incident is a complete mystery to me, but I suspect that my banishment from the Inn had to do with something that happened the first night I stayed there. I have never suffered from migraines, but that night I came down with the worst, most thunderous, searing headache I have ever experienced. I had neither pain pills nor sleeping pills with me, and, in too much agony to sleep, and crying noisily, I staggered upstairs in my bare feet and PJ’s to find the receptionist and beg for some remedy. I had not realized that since this was a Bed and Breakfast-style Inn and not a hotel, there was no night-clerk. The lobby was deserted. I rang the little bell on the desk several times, hoping to somehow invoke someone who could take pity but nobody came. Clutching my head and starting to sob, I stumbled into the lobby hoping to find a liquor cabinet or wine case that I could break into, then smash one of the bottles against a tree outside (I don’t carry a bottle opener with me. Perhaps I should.) and sedate myself with it and just incur the consequences of the theft, wreckage, and inevitable hangover in the morning. I was truly desperate. There was no liquor anywhere. Now I abandoned myself to all-out wailing, hoping that someone staying in one of the rooms adjoining the lobby would hear me and rescue me from my pain. Nobody came. So I started howling and scratching on the doors like a cat, and still nobody came. I made my way on my knees to the front entrance, intending to flag down a passing car and hitchhike to the nearest walgreens so I could steal a small packet of advil, but when I opened the heavy wooden doors, I found that it was pouring rain outside, and that I’d have to crawl across a wide and stately courtyard laid with gravel to get to the road, Maple Avenue, which was off the main city streets and mostly untrafficked. So I started calling “Hello? Hellooooooo?” into the night, hoping that some homeless vagabond prowling this tony area for burgling opportunities would hear me and offer me some drugs. But nobody came. Finally, I fell back inside the lobby and dragged myself, now soaked to the skin, along the hardwood floors, whimpering that I wanted to die. I don’t now how I finally fell asleep that night, but the next morning my pain was all gone and when I revisited the lobby for continental breakfast, I noticed that I was being met with unusually disapproving stares from other guests and the staff. The receptionist answered my taxicab request coldly indeed and I realized that the night before I had not in fact been “alone” but rather “ignored;” these Connecticut-types believed that I had undergone some rock-star episode, like I’d run out of methodone or had a particularly bad case of D.T,’s, and they hadn’t wanted to get involved. I was a persona non grata because of my headache, and thus, -banishment.) Anyway, this job paid so little that even if people had been happy to disrupt their Christmas dinners with a subscription purchase, I couldn’t stay on. To illustrate, I worked 16 hours a week, and for the two week period when I was the “star” of the office, winning all the little selling competitions and closing the most deals, I brought home a check for $230.
I also had a job in a real estate office cold-calling all the property owners in Manhattan asking if they wanted to sell their homes. Nobody ever did. My hostess had gotten me this job with her then-boyfriend who was the main broker. He paid me in cash and despite the debilitating tedium of the job, I liked having it, because my boss was never there, and my one co-worker and I often sat in the office net-surfing, telling scatological jokes, and discussing Southpark. Plus, I had access to much useful information there; for instance, I now know that if I ever meet a man with the last name of Brusco, I must marry him immediately because he and his clan own most of the Upper West Side. Imagine the alimony payments! However, after a few months my hostess had a fight with my-boss-her-boyfriend and punched him out, after which he never wanted to see either of us again.
I then sunk even lower and took on another telemarketing job, this one with a company that offered discount vacations in Florida and the Bahamas and required vacationers to attend a timeshare demonstration. There was no cushy moral cause that I could rest on to justify disturbing peoples’ dinners or workdays or time with their families. Furthermore, these people weren’t all congregated in some posh New England gated community. They were scattered all over mid-America, and had signed up to win what they believed was a free vacation while they were (definitely drunk) at various events and festivals—”Minneapolis Rib America,” “Sturgis Bike Rally,” “Great American Beer Fest.” I would recite the script to them, and if they were still game despite sobriety, I’d coax their credit card numbers from them and charge the $600 the trip cost, after which I’d inform them of the extra $150/head of port departure taxes as well as the fact that booze on the cruiseship was not covered in the price of the vacation. All this was strictly according to the script, and I usually felt like I was taking advantage of people too naïve and good-natured to stand a chance against New York commercial selling tactics. They were too polite to object when I ordered them to read me the security code on the back of their Visas, too cowed to reconsider when I insisted that they surprise their spouses with a Disneyworld vacation rather than wait to consult with them before they put the money down. I often had to instruct them to get themselves passports, men and women in their fifties who had never left the country and had no idea what was involved in so doing.
After withstanding as much shame as I could take, I left the office one day and never returned.
I just signed on with Cipriani New York, a catering company with several ballrooms in Manhattan. I was drawn to this company because I heard it caters a lot of celebrity parties and I figured I’d get better stories out of spilling things on famous people than I would spilling things on regular joes. I bought the uniform tux (and was appalled to have to spend $100 on something made entirely of polyester) and attended the hospitality training session. The session involved no actual practice; instead the instructor just inserted a training video into the VCR at the head of the table and left the room. The soundtrack to this video was the same as that of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, complete with the bizarre synthesized rendition of Purcell’s “Death of Queen Mary” march. I take this as a good sign.